As the lights fade in on 2nd Story Theatre’s production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, we are voyeuristically introduced to the play’s only two characters in a dimly lit scene of uncomfortable intimacy. At that moment, they connect in the moaning throes of romantic entanglement. After that, rarely do they harmonize again throughout the the play. Johnny pursues and Frankie evades. A story of unrequited love after requited sex, the play puts the unstoppable force in the one-room apartment of the immovable object. What happens is a single night of human beings at their most vulnerable. And that is fascinating.
The play, set in a small apartment with only two actors, was written by Terrence McNally as though it were meant to be a master class in scene study. In another theater, this could mean an excruciatingly bad play, through which one feels obligated to sit uncomfortably while the actors emote self-indulgently. But not 2nd Story’s production. Under the skillful direction of Mark Peckham, the story of two middle-aged people in various states of undress, talking to one another in a drably decorated Hell’s Kitchen flat, eating cold meatloaf sandwiches and challenging the other’s loneliness, proves more captivating than anything recently set in the Marvel Universe, available through Netflix, and (quite likely) also set in Hell’s Kitchen.
Chris Perrotti’s Johnny seems in a continuous state of agitation. He is too loud, too emotional, too large for the small space. And, he is perfect for this role. Chris as Johnny is overly intense, as if he were a card-carrying member of the “Hearts-On-Sleeves Association of America.” Obsessed with treating coincidences as signs, Perrotti’s Johnny overcompensates for his childlike insecurities, reminding us all that grownups are just children pretending to be grownups and wondering when we will stop faking it and actually feel it. Emily Lewis, by contrast, plays Frankie as a person sharpened by the daily grindstone of life. Without expectations of happiness, she behaves with an assumption of the worst from everyone else and, therefore, has developed emotional anorexia. With impeccable timing and nuance, Lewis can be seen simultaneously responding with the inner tug-of-war between her natural desire to embrace the outpouring of frenetic honesty from Johnny, and her cultivated callousness and distrust of other people. Peckam’s understated directorial style draws from the actors just the right combination of what each has to offer, not just to the role, but also to one another. His own relaxed sincerity as a craftsperson is reflected in his work here.
In today’s society of digital distraction and communication by any means other than in-person, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is a beautiful reminder of the complexity of human interaction. 2nd Story Theatre captured that essence extremely well in their production.
Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune is playing Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm; and Sundays at 2:30pm through November 27 at 2nd Story Theatre located at 28 Market St, Warren. Call the box office at 401-247-4200 for tickets or visit 2ndstorytheatre.com